2017 BMW 5 Series review

The all-new BMW 5 Series blends classic styling, smart engineering and lashings of new-school technology. How does it fare in local conditions now it's landed in Australia?
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What’s the all-new 2017 BMW 5 Series like? After two days and a couple of hundred kays across all manner of South Australian roads at its local launch, the broad verdict is that it’s emphatically, unequivocally, well, a 5 Series BMW. That might sound like a twee cop out from the car and reviewer alike, but hear me out.

With 45 years of providence under its beltline, and as BMW’s longest running nameplate, the 5 Series formula of blending executive luxury with driving enjoyment was inspired at its 1972 birth and cemented over six previous and largely accomplished generations. So it’s fair to say the 5er concept, in this seemingly subtly remade G30 form, has earned the right to transcend sweeping shake-ups or revolutionary change.

While this seventh generation looks, feels, smells and tastes oh-so familiar – why meddle with success? – it must keep up with the times, if merely for the sake of relevancy. And BMW decided to underline the 5 Series’ time-honoured luxo-driving duality with a bold and dizzying array of bells and whistles technology as its pitch to keep its four- (and eventually five-) door at the forefront of the premium large-car segment.

What are particularly rough waters to negotiate for the captains behind the 5 Series creation is blending the time-honoured classicisms that anchor the range’s character and appeal, with the slick modernism expected today from bleeding-edged technology. Has BMW succeeded? What I can tell you is that while you don’t need two days and hundreds of kays to discover the G30 oozes friendly and familiar 5 Series from its pores, it may take much longer to get your head around whether techy new-school underscore greatly improves the breed or not.

“It’s a real Alborz kind of car,” says one scribe from a rival media outlet, without malice, in reference CarAdvice’s co-founder’s penchant for new tech and the desire to dig and tweak to produce the best from it.

If you’re the type who loves a dizzying array of features, who’ll invest good time – perhaps even a couple of weeks – fossicking through to unearth their best, who likes a high degree of configurable personalisation, the 5 Series’ gadget suite will reward handsomely. Or, at least, that's what I'm told.

There’s far too much button prodding and submenu searching for me to fully get my head around during a limited launch program with a fair focus on flexing the sedans' more easily accessible muscles negotiating the demanding byways of the challenging Adelaide Hills.

Of the four variants now available in showrooms, we only had the opportunity to drive the two petrol versions: the 2.0-litre four-cylinder 530i, which lists for $108,900, and the 3.0-litre six-powered 540i, currently the priciest in range at $136,900 before on-roads. What we didn’t drive but are due to visit the CarAdvice garage soon enough are the price-busting ($93,900) entry 520d, featuring a 140kW/400Nm 2.0-litre diesel four, and the 3.0-litre oiler six-powered 530d that asks for $119,900 list and which produces 195kW and a stonking 620Nm of torque. You can read more about the full range rundown here.

While my dogged inner traditionalist maintains that a real large premium German experience demands a proper six-cylinder heartbeat, the 530i can easily convince that such a marriage isn’t actually necessary or mandatory. This ‘B48’ coded engine, as found in the 330i, offers 185kW and 350Nm, a nominal five kilowatts up on the old car.

The four-cylinder offers quiet, reasonably energetic and quite unflustered forward progress. Its claimed 6.2-second 0-100km/h is certifiably handy, no doubt aided by a reduction of weight of “up to 95 kilograms” over like-for-like old-generation 5 Series thanks to a Jenny Craig detour en route to fruition. The aluminium doors, for instance, weigh as little as just six kilograms apiece, and in 530i trim the scales tip at an impressively lightweight 1540kg. While its no quicker than its F10-gen predecessor, with identical acceleration claims, consumption for this larger 5er is said to have dropped from 6.5 litres to 5.8L/100kms.

It does feel fractionally larger on the road than an F10 sedan, though it’s not actually a more wieldy drive experience. It’s no powerhouse, but as the less-endowed 5 Series of the current or (perhaps) future G30 line-up, it’s unreasonable to expect it to be. Instead, BMW engineers delivered where it really matters most, which is in refinement and driveability, areas where Munich’s petrol fours have long been segment leaders and where this engine continues the legacy.

The engine is smooth and quiet, even under hard load. It’s paired impressive well with the so-called ‘Sport’ eight-speed automatic. The pairing is intuitively responsive in Comfort drive mode and noticeably more assertive in Sport mode without any unwanted gruffness or edginess. Importantly, the under-bonnet credentials feel significant and polished enough to deliver a satisfying premium-ness often lacking in four-pot-powered plus-sized luxury cars. It’ll be interesting see how it fares against its natural Euro nemeses.

Our test car foregoes its standard-fitment M Sport addenda for a no-cost optional Luxury Line Package, which fits the lower-spec petrol version nicely. Its ($950) optional 20-inch wheels, in lieu of standard 19s, perhaps don’t do outright ride comfort much favour, but beside some noticeable tyre roar there’s little to grumble about.

The adaptive suspension, with continuously variable damping, is plush and pliant in Comfort mode, yet allows the body to settle quickly over large-compression bumps, doing so with just a modicum of float that more favourable than frustrating.

Dial up Sport – which affects steering, suspension, transmission and throttle calibration – and there’s a shade more purpose and focus, if thankfully without any dramatic shift in character. There’s subtlety in changes to even the most conspicuous areas the drive modes govern. It never rips off the dinner suit off to reveal Superman garb, which really works in the 530i’s favour.

In fact, some of what BMW calls a “highly active chassis” has transparency to the point of being imperceptive: there’s a new Adaptive drive mode that, using sensor inputs and navigation data, can vary the vehicle’s responses proactively, but telling you that it can be felt by the seat of the driver’s pants would be a big, fat, fib.

There’s more ‘velvet hammer’ about the 540i, most of that thanks to the extra 100Nm (450Nm outright) rather than the added 65kW (250kW total). The six’s peak torque spread is wider, too, and the heightened effortlessness of the powertrain is obvious. At full throttle, despite an added 55kg of heft, the ‘big six’ is said to hit triple figures in just 5.1 seconds and it certainly feels a whole second swifter than the 530i.

Where the four-pot manages to rise to the premium occasion, the six-cylinder fully embodies it, especially in the everyday, part-throttle response and drivability stakes. Together with an 11 per cent hike in power over the old F10 535i, this ‘B58’ drops claimed combined consumption by 15 per cent, now an impressive 6.7L/100km.

The 540i gets 20-inch wheels with 245mm and 275mm run-flat rubber standard (as optioned on our 530i) and electrically controlled roll stabilisation, for a flatter cornering stance, is also bundled in for the extra $17k outlay, though otherwise the adaptive suspension is identical. Again, it's added tech for a shade of tangible difference – indeed, improvement – though it's possibly the six cylinder’s M Sport Package accoutrements – namely larger brakes but mostly aesthetic changes inside and out – that provide a, sort of, combined placebo effect for what seems like extra sportiness compared with the 530i.

Both sedans have excellent steering, are easy to place in corners, are surefooted and confident at a brisk grand touring clip. Neither, however, are fitted with the optional four-wheel-steering system – more low-speed manoeuvrability, more high-speed stability – that’s $2250 on any 5 Series bar the flagship 540i, where it can be had for no extra cost. What’s most fitting, though, is that at no time either sedan trades comfortable, luxo-laden passage in any quest for swifter progress.

So far, so 5 Series. And really no sign of hamfisted new-tech application robbing from the luxo-driver’s device forebears of the breed that have strived long to protect and covet.

But the view forward for BMW’s large car is writ large with the terms “personal co-pilot” and the logical oxymoron that is “more autonomous” where, literally speaking, a car either is autonomous or it isn’t.

In keeping up with the forward-thinking Joneses, the 5 Series is technically adept enough to drive itself unaided: adaptive cruise control with stop/go functionality, active lane keeping, active side collision avoidance, and there are six cameras, five radar sensors, 12 ultrasonic sensors to survey the 360-degree world around the car and avoid clear and present dangers with its comprehensive warning system network.

Tick the Innovations Package options box (a nominal $1600) and you can park your 5er via remote control using the tricky BMW Display Key (which recharges inductively in the cabin), or control some of the infotainment system functions using gesture control like you just stepped into a scene from a Tom Cruise sci-fi flick.

Further, the speed sign recognition system BMW put on local sale years back and then controversially recalled has been updated and rolled out again, this time as a more broadly encompassing ‘speed limit notification’ system using camera and map data in tandem, and that can be personally ‘tuned’, with a speed threshold adjustment, by the driver.

And yet perhaps for legislative rather than technological reasons, the 5 Series doesn’t – or won’t - completely drive itself. Yet.

BMW claims the car will drive itself unaided in the right conditions for up to 30 seconds, after which its self-steering feature shuts up shop and screams at the driver to regain steering control. And so it proved on one particularly non-descript piece of South Australian country road in test. The Bimmer wasn’t even flustered by an oncoming Nissan Patrol on the single carriageway, closing speed roughly 200km/h. On admittedly limited evidence, the new 5 Series will walk right up the front door of autonomous driving and give it a good knock, it just won’t walk on through.

Designers have done an admirable and reasonably convincing job in cabin walking the line between conspicuous technological enhancement and maintaining BMW’s favoured classicisms. Case in point is the 12.3-inch digital instrumentation: it changes configuration and colour scheme depending on the chosen drive mode, yet retains time-honoured styling, right down to the dual metallic crescents overlaid onto the screen creating physical ‘dials’.

BMW’s thrown the kitchen sink at infotainment and there are now five different ways to interact. The customary circular controller remains, but its top doubles as a touchpad – a seemingly useless function until you attempt to input a sat nav destination without removing your eyes from the road ahead, where it can be very handy. The 10.25-inch is now a touchscreen, and the voice control system uses what’s called ‘natural language recognition’ that, from our brief test at launch, responds more often than not to very lazy and casual spoken inputs. The gesture control? It’s gimmicky and extremely limited in functionality, but it’ll give the kids something to laugh at while you perform hand puppet movements trying to raise or lower the stereo’s volume…

The so-called ‘app-style’ display format of the new iDrive 6 software, which arranges functions into tiles that you swipe through, seems fiddly and distracting at first. But it’s designed so that the end user, most likely the driver, can configure their favourite functions to their personal whims.

That’s just the tip of the personalisation iceberg. BMW ConnectedDrive services are fitted throughout the range, and with BMW Connected app-based services finally rolled out in Oz, your 5er can cross reference real-time traffic with your personal calendar to send you ‘time to leave’ messages on your phone to streamline that time-poor life of yours to the minute.

There’s even a Find Car feature in case you forgot where you parked, and other features intent on convincing you that, much like your smartphone, your large executive car from Munich is an indispensable ally going about your day-to-day business. And the kinds of business we certainly couldn’t scratch during the limitations of the local car launch program…

We did run through the novel wireless Apple CarPlay facility, which also caters for Android Auto and, via Bluetooth, can cleverly connect two smartphones simultaneously. Why? No lightning cable needed. Recharging? Via inductive charging in the centre console (provided you use a Qi-certified iPhone case). And the 5er will make a song and dance if you attempt to leave the vehicle without your phone.

Another excellent feature is the parking assistance camera system that, by some black magic-like technical trickery, can provide a 360-degree exterior image of the car in its current environment. Amazing stuff.

The cabin design is a more stylised take on 5 Series – indeed BMW – tradition, with conventional floating-screen infotainment, central stack layout and intuitively button placement. As rivals Mercedes-Benz E-Class, with its slick digital dual-screen panorama, and Volvo S90, with its ‘future minimalist’ arrangement, might target adventurous tastes, the creature of habit BMW approach maintains serious appeal for buyers favouring the familiar and traditional. Well, to a point: the 5er blends conventional and unconventional user interface, and what’s not immediately intuitive – the tiling feature, gesture control – isn’t difficult to acclimatise to, though they do demand user application.

Subtle differences create distinction between the (530i) optional Luxury Line and (540i) standard issue M Sport cabin designs, including the respective comfort and sport front seating, each distinctive in shape yet equally plush, supportive and dipped in particularly lush Nappa leather. Either cabin space trades flash for richness and an innate depth of quality, from the variety of finishes on show to sheer tactility.

The most noticeable improvement in interior space for this larger seventh generation is in rear legroom, though generally speaking it’s not a particularly cavernous cabin space, but nor is it claustrophobic. In the rear, there’s ample room for two adults – three across is a squeeze – and that near coupe-like sloping roofline inhibits headroom a little. The 40:20:40 splitfold second row folds to allow access to the extremely deep boot space, which otherwise measures 530 litres with the rear seating in play.

On paper, even the lower-spec 530i lays on the standard equipment thick, though neither test car was realistically close to base spec. For instance, Apple CarPlay, wireless or not, commands a $623 premium, even on the $136,900 flagship.

Both test cars had a number of options weighing down their bottom lines markedly. With the 530i, the 20-inch wheels, Innovations Package, Apple CarPlay, ceramic control surrounds, electric glass roof, metallic paint, seat heating and rear roller blinds lifted its as tested price to $120,173 before on-roads.

Our 540i fitted options included an alarm system, Apple CarPlay, four-zone air-con, rear reading lights, tricky Night Vision with Person Recognition, B&W sound, ceramic control surrounds, headlight washers, an Innovations Package, an Indulgence Package (soft-closing doors, massage front seats, rear entertainment system with TV), steering wheel heating, seat heating front and rear, and tyre pressure monitoring, lifting the $136,900 base prospect to a $167,473 (list price) as-tested experience.

BMW is hardly the loner of the Euro premium set to charge handsomely for options, but some of this stuff listed above – alarm, washers, tyre monitoring, even seat heating – ought to be standard fitment for what’s already proper money without extra boxes ticked. While there’s quite a lot of extra standard equipment across the 5er range, prices have hiked considerably over F10 forebears: the 530i wants $9745 more than the old 528i; the 540i is $19,245 pricier than the 535i it replaces.

At its international launch, Alborz surmised the new 5 Series takes all that was good about its predecessor one step further. And so it proves now that the impressively evolved if more expensive premium sedan has hit local shores.

Our own James Ward also spent some time in the 530i in and around Melbourne around the time of the range's local launch in an effort to dig further into 5 Series goodness – check out his video at the top of this story.

More questions remain. Like how well the two diesel versions go. And how the classic-flavoured if techno-laden four-door from Munich fares against the linoleum-slick new-gen Mercedes-Benz E-Class or Volvo’s flamboyantly modernistic S90, to name two prestigious rivals, beg comparison. Stay tuned...

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